Netball Australia has said it is an “absolute priority” to address and resolve any concerns raised by Diamonds player Donnell Wallam amid opposition to a new sponsorship partnership with Hancock Prospecting.
But the cash-strapped organisation will not turn its back on Gina Rinehart’s mining company, and on Tuesday reinforced its support for the multimillion-dollar deal announced last month.
The partnership has caused controversy, with Noongar woman Wallam having raised concerns over Hancock’s record on Indigenous issues. Former Diamonds captain Sharni Norder has also voiced concerns over the company’s environmental credentials.
The Diamonds appeared in two recent Constellation Cup games in New Zealand without Hancock’s logo on their uniforms, prompting speculation the players had sided with Wallam and staged a boycott, plunging the sport into turmoil.
NA on Tuesday rejected that any on-court protest had been made and reinforced its support for what it labelled a “groundbreaking” partnership.
Talks with the playing group are ongoing, but NA conceded the matter remains unresolved ahead of the final two matches of the Constellation Cup on home soil.
“Since becoming aware of cultural sensitivities raised by a Diamonds squad member in respect of the Hancock sponsorship uniform logo placement, Netball Australia and Hancock Prospecting have been working tirelessly to acknowledge and recognise the sensitivities, to further understand the concerns of that squad member and to provide avenues for support,” the statement said.
“Hancock Prospecting met with the Origin Australian Diamonds leadership group the day after the concerns were raised to extend its support and commitment to Netball Australia and to share experiences, understand perspectives and support these cultural sensitivities through the partnership.”
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The playing group had remained silent on the matter in public until the captain, Liz Watson, spoke on Tuesday after Hancock representatives had addressed the Australian team. Watson said all parties “wanted to make it work”.
“As players we do know that Hancock is such a great investment for our program,” Watson said. “We are supportive of Hancock and all the players here are as well.”
Wallam is not in the Constellation Cup squad, but is expected to become just the third Indigenous player to represent Australia in the following series against England.
Watson said Wallam too had the support of the players, and that she was confident a resolution to the situation was imminent.
“She’s part of this program, she knows where we stand, and we’re supporting Donnell with everything that’s going on,” Watson said. “We’re supporting her cultural sensitivities around the program, around the partnership, and we want her to be herself and feel comfortable and strong. I know that the girls are supportive of that.”
It remains to be seen whether the Diamonds will wear a uniform with a Hancock logo on it for the games against New Zealand on Wednesday and Sunday this week.
NA chair Wendy Archer – who replaced Marina Go on Monday – said there was no obligation to wear the Hancock dress during the Constellation Cup due to additional obligations placed on NA by the Australian Netball Players’ Association (ANPA).
“Netball Australia believed that it was not in the best interests of the players, the sport or Hancock Prospecting to wear the dress at this time,” she said. “Hancock Prospecting has been accommodating and supportive of ensuring that players are not unnecessarily distracted.”
The deal, worth $15m over four years, has come to the aid of the organisation after it announced losses of more than $7m over the past two years.
“Netball Australia has reinforced its support of its groundbreaking partnership with Hancock Prospecting,” NA said. “The investment underpins our Australian Diamonds program for future success and enables Netball Australia to build and grow our great game at a community and grassroots level.”
Hancock Prospecting has invested heavily in sports other than netball and has partnerships in place with elite level swimming, synchronised swimming, rowing and women’s volleyball. It is also a major financial contributor to the Australian Olympic Committee.